The Rise of the Guardian Coup


No-one can predict with certainty whether the military takeover in Egypt will lead to a functional democracy, a military junta, or some other form of dictatorship. Yet, this working paper by Hein Goemans and Nikolay Marinov provides some grounds for optimism. They show that while coups had traditionally led to durable dictatorships, this picture has changed since 1990. Now, the vast majority of coups result in competitive elections rather than durable dictatorships. The authors attribute this to a change in the structure of the international system, including the development of an ‘electoral norm’. The paper is currently under revision but a version can be accessed here and the abstract is below.

In this paper, we use new data on coup d’etats and elections to uncover a striking change in what happens after the coup. Whereas the vast majority of successful coups before 1990 installed their leaders durably in power, between 1991 and 2001 the picture reverses, with the majority of coups leading to competitive elections in 5 years or less. We argue that with the end of the Cold War, outside pressure has produced a development we characterize as the “electoral norm” – a requirement that binds successful coup-entrepreneurs to hold reasonably prompt and competitive elections upon gaining power. Consistent with our explanation, we find that post-Cold War those countries that are most dependent on Western aid have been the first the embrace competitive elections after the coup. Our theory is also able to account for the pronounced decline in the non-constitutional seizure of executive power since the early 1990s. While the coup d’etat has been and still is the single most important factor leading to the down- fall of democratic government, our findings indicate that the new generation of coups have been considerably less nefarious for democracy than their historical predecessors.

3 Responses to The Rise of the Guardian Coup

  1. Frank Wilhoit February 13, 2011 at 1:52 pm #

    What changed is that elections became easier to manipulate.

  2. Chris Hanretty February 13, 2011 at 3:26 pm #

    Thanks for digging this out, it’s very valuable, esp. their H.2 (Western aid increases incidence of elections being held).

  3. Jonathan Edelstein February 14, 2011 at 8:36 pm #

    The length of time from the coup until a competitive election isn’t the whole story. Consider Thailand, for instance — 15 months from coup to general election. In the interim, however, the military and judiciary empaneled a rigged constitutional drafting assembly, which promulgated a draft charter that significantly decreased the scope of democratic space and entrenched the “deep state” as final arbiter. That constitution was approved after a campaign conducted under martial law in which those who campaigned for a “no” vote were subject to arrest. Since then, the deep state has used the constitution to act against governments and political parties that didn’t toe the line and to suppress populist demonstrators.

    Or consider Mauritania. The 2005 coup was a textbook example of a “good one” — the junta deposed a bloody dictator, oversaw the drafting of a new constitution after public consultation, and held several rounds of free elections that brought constituencies like ex-slaves into the political dialogue. But even though the junta itself went back to barracks, the military got a taste for power, and pulled off a considerably less democracy-minded coup in 2008.

    Juntas still do install their leaders durably in power a good deal of the time — they just do it in subtler, more indirect ways. This isn’t to say that genuine “guardian coups” never happen, but the military’s background role needs to be examined as closely as the electoral timetable.